With Ukraine base seizures, Russia moves to consolidate control of Crimea
Russian soldiers and militiamen stormed a Ukrainian air force base in Crimea on Saturday, firing shots and smashing through gates and walls with armored vehicles, ending a lengthy standoff with Ukrainian forces.
Ukrainian troops had been resisting Russian pressure to surrender arms and vacate Belbek airbase after Moscow officially declared the annexation of Crimea on Friday, following a controversial referendum.
Ukraine and Russia had agreed to a truce on military actions with a Friday deadline; Kyiv had agreed to withdraw all military forces from Crimea, but Russia apparently preferred to take action.
Russian soldiers without insignias broke into Belbek airbase facing no apparent resistance from Ukrainian troops, many of whom turned their backs on the Russian forces and sang the Ukrainian national anthem as events unfolded.
For days, Ukrainian soldiers at Belbek had refused to abandon their posts, saying they had received no orders from the interim government in Kyiv.
Ukrainian defense officials say at least one Ukrainian soldier was wounded in the siege. Some reporters and cameramen covering the takeover were roughed up by Russian solders and had their equipment seized, including those working for VOA.
Belbek is the last major military holdout against the Russian takeover of Crimea, as most Ukrainian defenses across the peninsula had already been overrun, with many troops vacating their posts or joining up with Russian forces.
The siege followed an ultimatum issued by Russian forces earlier in the day that called for Ukrainian troops at the base to surrender. Belbek also shares facilities with the international airport in Sevastopol, where Russia has a large naval base.
Just hours before the raid, the commander of the base, Colonel Yuliy Manchur, told VOA that he and his troops would never join the Russian military.
Russian soldiers later took him away for questioning.
In the evening, Russian soldiers and pro-Russian militiamen stormed Ukraine’s last navy ship in Sevastopol bay. Also on Saturday, a pro-Russian crowd tried to storm a Ukrainian naval base in Novofedorovka; Ukrainians responded with smoke bombs, but it is not clear if the mob took over the base.
Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian military bases and warships in Crimea comes as officials in the Kremlin finalize the country’s annexation of the strategic peninsula. Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law Friday that recognizes his parliament’s approval of a referendum by Crimeans on breaking away from Ukraine.
With Russia’s takeover of the peninsula nearly complete, some western diplomats are converging on Kyiv, where, a day after the interim government leaders signed a political alignment pact with the European Union, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeir accused Russian of attempting once again to divide Europe between East and West.
“It contradicts what we have experienced for decades,” Steinmeir said. “We cannot accept this situation, cannot allow bloodshed again.”
Moscow, which denies its soldiers are involved, says its actions in Crimea are necessary to protect ethnic Russians from persecution by a fascist government in Kyiv. Though some right-wing nationalists are involved in the interim leadership, there is more evidence of attacks on Ukrainians by those loyal to Moscow.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry has expressed hope that a Friday decision to deploy civilian monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will reduce tensions in the region. However, the ministry rejects any talk of the monitors entering the recently annexed peninsula.
OSCE says up to 500 monitors will gather information on the security situation in Ukraine, including human rights.
U.S. chief envoy to the OSCE, Daniel Baer, says the mission should have access to Crimea because the rest of the world still recognizes it as Ukrainian territory.
Writing in the Telegraph newspaper, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Britain and its allies must now prepare for different relations with Russia than what they have enjoyed over the last 20 years.
Hague said this would include restricting military cooperation and arms sales to Russia and having Russia outside some international organizations.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who arrived in Kyiv Saturday — the first G7 leader to visit Yatsenyuk in Ukraine — said Canadians are impressed by the restraint Ukraine is showing despite what he calls Russia’s “obvious provocations.”
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised Ukraine’s new Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk for his “real leadership” on the second day of a visit to Ukraine. Ban also said he admired the prime minister’s call for “inclusiveness and reconciliation” at a time when many Ukrainian citizens are angry and frustrated about developments in their country.
During his stop in Kyiv, Ban also said direct dialogue between Kyiv and Moscow is critical to reducing current tensions.
However, there is no indication of that occurring any time soon.
In the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on Saturday, thousands took to the streets to demand a chance to hold their own referendum on whether to break away from Ukraine and become part of Russia.
Among those in the region who want to keep Ukrainian sovereignty, there are fears that at any time the Russian military could move across the border and occupy Ukrainian territory, as it did in Crimea.
According to some Kyiv-based officials, Ukraine is losing not only territory to Russia, but its eastward-dependent trade relationship with Moscow.
The interim government is moving quickly to work on a trade agreement with the European Union to transform Ukraine’s economy, which has been hobbled by decades of corruption and political upheaval.
If such a pact with the EU is to become a reality, Ukraine’s commissioner for European integration, Valery Pyatnytsky, says there is a need for action on comprehensive economic changes, not just more promises from the country’s political leaders.
“Not to declare the fight with corruption, not to declare the rules of law, not to declare the other values with European Union,” Pyatnytsky said. “Not to declare [what] we would like to be, but to be.”
Ukraine’s 45 million residents live on rich agricultural land that is also home to a large industrial base, yet the nation is considered the poorest in Eastern Europe.
Obama to G7
The U.S. says no one in the international community will recognize Crimea as part of Russia.
White House officials say the situation in Ukraine will be “front and center” during President Barack Obama’s trip to Europe in the coming week, during which he will attend a G-7 summit in The Hague — a meeting that probably would have included Russia as an eighth member.
National Security Advisor Susan Rice told reporters Friday that the common theme to the president’s trip is the fundamental strength of U.S. partnerships and alliances, including NATO, the European Union and the G7.
Rice said Ukraine and the Russian takeover of Crimea are prompting a fundamental reassessment of U.S.-Russian relations. She said the world will clearly see that Russia is more and more isolated.
Also on President Obama’s European schedule is a nuclear security summit with more than 50 other countries, including Russia.
Rice says the United States has every interest in continuing to cooperate with Russia on this issue, which she calls a pillar of the Obama national security policy — making it harder for terrorists to get their hands on nuclear materials.
Republican U.S. Senator Kelly Ayotte, who has called for more U.S. aid to Ukraine, is leading a congressional delegation on a visit to Kiyv Sunday.